Democracy is in trouble – but voters don’t care, and Repubs are red-baiting Skip to content

Democracy is in trouble – but voters don’t care, and Repubs are red-baiting

Berry Craig interviewed two KY professors, Josh Douglass and John Hennen, about the state of democracy. What they said is not encouraging.

4 min read
(Editorial cartoon by Patrick Chappatte of the Boston Globe, licensed via Cagle)

“The fate of American democracy hangs largely on these little digits you see at gas stations across the country,” warned MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “As wild as it is to say that, it’s basically true.”

“Voters overwhelmingly believe American democracy is under threat, but seem remarkably apathetic about that danger, with few calling it the nation’s most pressing problem, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll,” wrote Nick Corasaniti, Michael C. Bender, Ruth Igielnik and Kristen Bayrakdarian in the New York Times.

When pollsters asked registered voters, “What do you think is the MOST important problem facing the country today?” 45 percent said the economy and inflation while only seven percent answered “The state of democracy.”

“I think a large plurality of people haven’t given much thought to what citizen participation in democracy is supposed to be,” said John Hennen, an author and retired Morehead State University history professor. But he fears that all too many Americans in that plurality are “fine with the drift toward an authoritarian state as long as they feel they or their personal economic situation will be protected.”

Josh Douglas, a University of Kentucky law professor, legal scholar, and author, suggested that, at least in part, voters who are most motivated by economic issues “don’t see how these democracy issues are affecting their everyday lives” like “gas prices and other economic issues.”

He added, “Democracy issues have never been salient for the average voter, which I think is unfortunate especially after what happened on Jan. 6 and its aftermath. And maybe people think democracy really isn’t at the brink the way that a lot of experts fear it is.”

A Trump-incited mob stormed the Capitol in his name on Jan. 6, 2021, in a violent and deadly attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Trump still deflects blame for the insurrection; he and his supporters, including many Republicans on Nov. 8 ballots, continue to charge falsely that the election was “stolen” from him.

“It’s really concerning when you have a lot of election deniers running for office that will have the power to control elections,” Douglas said. “These people don’t believe in democracy."

Citing the New York Times/Siena poll, Bloomberg’s Julianna Goldman wrote in The Washington Post that voters don’t automatically view “election denialism…as disqualifying.” In the poll, she added, “nearly 40% of registered voters said they’d be very or somewhat comfortable voting for a candidate who thought the 2020 election was stolen, but with whom they agreed on most positions.”

Goldman also wrote that the Post reported that “a majority of Republican nominees for Congress and statewide office have denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 election. Some 28% of secretaries of state running for office this year are election deniers; 21% of governors, 40% of House candidates and 24% of Senate candidates, according to the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST) at the University of Chicago, which analyzed data from FiveThirtyEight.”

The U.S. has long had an authoritarian fringe, Hennen said, citing pro-Nazi sentiment before the country entered World War II. “Trump has liberated that type of thinking. Trump and the Trump acolytes have taken that tendency toward authoritarianism or fascism — that’s what it is in many cases — and made it okay.”

He said Trump and the Republican right have resurrected Cold War-style right-wing red baiting. “Democrats are no longer ‘liberals,’ or even ‘socialists,’ – now they’re ‘communists.’”

Writing in Roll Call, Stuart Rothenberg quoted from a fund-raising email Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga) sent out.

Zealously pro-Trump, she condemned “Joe Biden’s Communist Green New Deal.” She flayed her unholy trinity on the Jan. 6 committee: Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). She renamed the panel “The January 6 Witch Hunt Committee.”

Greene charged that anti-Trump Republicans were in cahoots “with Communist Democrats to rig the 2022 and 2024 elections.” Meanwhile, she said “Joe Biden’s hands are drenched with blood after the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.” In addition, the president's “crippling” of “American energy production” was in his “scheme to impose socialism on America.”

She reloaded and fired again: “The swamp pulled out all the stops to defeat me.” “Hollywood liberals, Never Trumpers, and insider lobbyists poured $5,000,000,000 into the campaign account of my communist Democrat opponent.”

Greene was confident email recipients would open their wallets and help her “stop communism and save America.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another staunch Trump ally, mailed out a flier that claimed Charles Booker, his Democratic opponent, “WILL BRING SOCIALISM TO KENTUCKY.” Though they’re Democrats, Mary and Ivan Potter of Clinton got one of the fliers on Oct. 26, the day Booker was in nearby Paducah for a campaign rally.

The ad equates socialism with communism by showing Booker, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Soviet army fur hats. Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are democratic socialists, not communists. Booker’s first and last names are spelled with backward “R’s” to simulate Russian writing.

(In 2019, the Kentucky Democratic Party satirically dubbed Mitch McConnell “Moscow Mitch” and raised money by selling buttons, stickers, posters and other merchandise depicting him in a similar chapeau. But the KDP didn’t seriously claim that  Kentucky’s senior senator aimed to turn the Bluegrass State communist.)

“I suppose it’s too much to ask of Republican officeholders and voters to know what communism is or to follow the rules of decorum,” Rothenberg sighed. “GOP voters aren’t looking for intelligence or knowledge these days. They don’t value those qualities. They just want to win.”


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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY